Marriage, Divorce – the tug-o-war. Matthew 19.3-10
When studying a passage of Scripture –
-is the verse or passage directed to a particular group,
meant for a certain time only?
-is there something new being taught, maybe a new law
or covenant or way of thinking, particularly with
the coming of the Gospel/the Good News?
-what may be applied to our lives today?
-is there some action I should take?
Let’s take a look at the passage:
“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”1
So Jesus recognizes from the outset that the Pharisees are trying to ‘trip him up’, trying to pit him against Moses.
A little digging is in order. What was the custom of the day regarding marriage?
Well, first – the Pharisees themselves were unclear about rules regarding divorce. We must understand that in the eyes of Jewish law, a woman was a thing. She was the possession of her father, or of her husband as the case might be; therefore technically, she had no legal rights at all. Most Jewish marriages were arranged either by the parents or by professional match-makers. A girl might be engaged to be married in childhood, and was often engaged to be married to a man whom she had never seen. There was this safeguard--when she came to the age of twelve she could repudiate her father's choice of husband. But in matters of divorce, the general law was that the initiative must lie with the husband. The law ran: "A woman may be divorced with or without her consent, but a man can be divorced only with his consent." The woman could never initiate the process of divorce; she could not divorce, she had to be divorced.2 Yikes!
That said, no nation has ever had a higher view of marriage than the Jews. Marriage was a sacred duty. To remain unmarried after the age of twenty, except in order to concentrate upon the study of the Law, was to break a positive commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." He who had no children "slew his own posterity," and "lessened the image of God upon earth." "When husband and wife are worthy, the glory of God is with them.
The Jewish laws of marriage and of purity aimed very high. Ideally divorce was hated. God had said, "I hate divorce.3" There was clearly a breakdown in the ideal. And there was this contradiction in how easily a writ of divorce, as per Moses, could be used to dismiss one’s wife; the problem came in the interpretation of Moses’ law.
Jesus is correcting this principle.
But one has to grasp the heart of all of Jesus’ teaching to see the wholesale change in relationships, including marriage. Jesus treats women with dignity and respect; he elevates the station of women. To Jesus, a woman was certainly not a thing, and no man’s possession. And therefore he reiterates what Moses taught, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh,” and adds an exclamation mark with “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Adultery is the single ‘out’ Jesus gives to a spouse. Though remember – he had just taught that forgiveness is to be the rule for the God-loving obedient Christian, which may then require far more from an injured marital partner than divorce. A lot to think about.
It was just a few chapters before that Matthew captures Jesus’ teaching that, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”4 For the Jesus follower, we are meant to die to ourselves, and our selfishness. Hmm . . . what if we were to bury our self-centeredness when it came to marriage, putting our mate’s needs ahead of our own? Well then, that would pretty much end the tug–o–war in our marriages, would it not? Hmm . . . again, a lot to think about.
Love is unselfishly choosing for another’s highest good. C. S. Lewis
1 – Matthew 19.3-10
2 – William Barclay, Matthew 19 commentary
3 – Malachi 2.16
4 – Matthew 16.24